Reflections from President Erwin
October 2, 2020
Dear ULS Community:
This has been a busy week, both in the life of United Lutheran Seminary and in my own life, and at least for me, the Leitmotif of the week’s events has been “change”—change in the seasons, change in the life of ULS, change in our nation’s political life, and change in my own life. It’s been a little unsettling to me to have so much change, all at once, to deal with, so it was little harder than usual to know quite what to say to you today—the topics are plentiful, but what is most important to say right now? I’ve gone back and forth on that.
Let me start small and personal, and say how much I am rejoicing in the change of seasons. The slight shortening of the days and the coolness in the air that are harbingers of fall are welcome to me. You all know that I have come from Southern California, a place of relentlessly pleasant weather. In my 20 years there, I have enjoyed parts of that very much—particularly the cheerful sunshine. It took me several years to stop being surprised each day at how bright it was, and to just take it for granted like everybody else. So now I am even enjoying cloudiness and rain—I have a moisture deficit to make up for. And because for my whole life before that I lived in climates like the one in Pennsylvania, I have always associated fall with the start of school, and the anticipation of fun things ahead. While everyone else packs their summer things away sadly, I am happy to break out the sweaters and start a new year and a new life!
This week at ULS I marked a small milestone, as my first meeting of the Board of Trustees (as president) coincided with the end of my second month in office. It was a Zoom meeting, as all our meetings are in these pandemic days, and consequently it was compressed from its usual two days to two (essentially) two-hour plenary Zoom calls, and committee meetings in between. We opened it up a little more widely to the community to observe than we have in the past, and I hope to maintain that practice even though the number of people who really want to watch board reports is fairly small. The ELCA has an “open meeting” standard that I would like ULS generally to adhere to as well—not that everything is open, but that we have clear reasons whenever we do not have open sessions. And “open” in this context means “conducted in the sight of all” not that everyone has voice. We do make our board minutes part of the seminary’s permanent public record as well. I am committed to keeping people informed.
It’s also my hope to keep these weekly reflections truly “reflections” and not reports, so I’ll leave aside for now the content of the board meeting: you’ll hear from the Board Chair, Rev. Dr. Peter Boehringer, and from me on that early next week—but there were no surprises, and our fall meeting contains a higher-than-usual level of administrative housekeeping matters. The spirit of this meeting was not one of drama, but of calm—that we finally again have a settled president and that we can take a deep breath and try to re-establish equilibrium. As I said, more detail will be forthcoming next week. I was happy that the meeting went well, and shared in the general sense of a return to “normal” operations after three years of turmoil in the life of ULS.
The interesting (and for me, still exciting) aspect of that “normalcy” is that ULS is still so new, it’s not completely clear what “normal” will be. We are still in a sense a newly-formed seminary, and it’s obvious to me that we still have a lot of work to do on what it means to be what we are, and what we want to become. I’m really honored and happy to get to be part of that delayed normalcy, whatever we decide together it will be. Now, if we can get past the pandemic, we’ll be well placed to make long-range plans, and turn the reactivity of the last few years into a growth in unity and community.
The coronavirus pandemic of course occupied much of our reporting and conversation at the board meeting, and by now you have all heard of our collective decision to keep the January intensives and spring semester courses online. I wanted to share that with the board before announcing it to all. There was really no alternative as things stand now, as much as I would like to hope things will be better next year in regard to the virus. But we are doing as well as could be expected: we have been able to keep all our staff working; teaching and learning go on, if in more restricted ways; we are functioning. And of course we are in the same situation as our church congregations and society at large.
Our challenge at this point is to keep ourselves cheerful, focused on a recovery that will certainly come, and to try to learn now what we can from this less-than-optimal situation. I am fairly certain that when an end to the pandemic comes, it won’t come all at once, and that we will not ever go back quite to the way things were. Maybe this pandemic experience is a lesson for ULS too—we will move forward together now into new experiences rooted in the old but not bound or limited by them. There is loss and sadness, but there is also anticipation for the promise of the future.
It was a very strange thing to for me to move on Tuesday almost directly from the board meeting to watching the presidential “debate” on television the same night. What a contrast! The optimism and good feeling I carried home with me from the meeting evaporated in the debacle I witnessed. Everyone will have their own strong reactions, I am sure—and you don’t need mine in detail—but I think you all already know how shocked I was that one of the candidates not only refused to condemn white supremacy in principle, but even implied support for white nationalists. I’ll just leave that there. Call me naïve—especially in the face of all that has been said by him before—but it still shocked me deeply. I reacted with a short Facebook statement expressing my horror and incomprehension, saying simply “I condemn white supremacy. There is no other position possible for a Christian,” and with that I seem to have touched a nerve, because never have I had a post shared more than a thousand times or reached over 100,000 people with a single message. I take no credit for profundity, but simply was speaking what I hope many are feeling—waking up to our own white privilege, we need at least to speak out our desire for change. Now we must follow that desire in our lives. And the first part of that is by voting on November 3.
I’ll leave the rest of this week’s thoughts on race and politics for another time. Suffice it to say I believe that as Christians our call to action is clear and our need to be engaged is urgent. In a couple of weeks, I will address this in more detail and in closer reference to Lutheran theology. But for now I will just say that I long for a change both in the tone and the quality of our nation’s governance and our public life together.
Personally, Rob and I still move slowly but surely toward closing on a home near the Philadelphia campus, just over the border in Cheltenham Township in Montgomery County, and a very short drive from the seminary. There we hope to be able to entertain colleagues, students, and friends as soon as the pandemic allows. To be honest, we need a little time to acquire enough furniture—we left a lot behind in California. At the same time we are moving to get Lewars House on the Gettysburg campus ready to occupy, and I am already fantasizing about hosting the community there on a regular basis. I love old houses, and it will be fun to settle into both of these. In my scant idle time I am scouring Facebook Marketplace for second-hand furniture and will soon need to find a friend with a truck to help us take advantage of the national glut of used stuff out there.
I think that’s enough for one week. In balance it was a good week for ULS if not for the nation. There will be more concrete news from the board meeting next week, and the announcement of some happy staffing changes in the week of October 12. We all have a lot to look forward to, and I am grateful to God and to the ULS community for inviting me to share these times—challenging but hopeful—with you.
We can face together all that comes knowing that our strong cornerstone is Jesus Christ, and that all the evil in the world cannot prevail against that rock. Be of hope, good people of God, and love one another! May God bless you in the week ahead, as I offer you my own blessing.
Yours in Christ,
Rev. R. Guy Erwin, Ph.D.
Ministerium of Pennsylvania Chair
and Professor of Reformation Studies
United Lutheran Seminary